Japan: Tokyo Subway
The subways in Japan are the only way to travel. It's a fantastic way to see people and cross the city rapidly at a relatively low cost.
Of course as you're riding the subway here, it's important to keep in mind the New York subway, for perspective. Each time I'd think "Wow the Japanese are so crazy because they..." I'd remember that it's pretty much the same way on the New York subway. The few differences are key.
Riding the Subway in Tokyo is Great because you can:
- Stand very close to very many Japanese people
- During rush hour, and sometimes at other times, Japanese folks crowd into the subways in human density I've only experienced in situations like a Nine Inch Nails concert. Except that here people are quite civil and calm about having their face up against someones back.
- Watch Japanese people sleep
- Japanese people sleep on the subway without concern. Most of my time on the subway was spent sitting next to people who had their head tilted down and their eyes shut - if I remeber correctly, people in America are generally more carefuly to keep an eye on the world around him. It wouldn't be unusual to see a young woman travelling alone on the subway, asleep in her seat. I did find myself lulled by the low vibrations.
- See the latest technology
- Since you're so close to someone anyhow, it's not totally unexpected for you to lean in close to watch them play Galaga on their iMode phone.
- Check out foot fashion
- The subway is a great way to see Japanese footwear - there were some beautiful shoes.
There are many more women in Japan wearing high heels, and so their shoes have all sorts of frills and fringe. I saw one lady wearing four inch high heels where the bottom of the heel was flared out like a bell bottom, and the front of her shoe was enlongated with layers of black leather. It was a shoe worthy of the Mat Hatter, if he were cross-dressing; this woman was otherwise dressed very conservatively - in a formal dress-suit.
- Enjoy the handles
- The Tokyo subways had quite an ample number of handles for crowded cars - I enjoyed looking at them and hanging on them some.
- Trend watch
- John Ricciardi, who worked at Gamers.com and then moved to Japan, he observed with some derision how massively sweeping trends are in Tokyo - nearly every lady now is wearing a knee-length white coat, he observed. I saw quite a few of those, it's true; I also saw a whole lot of puffy jackets on the subway last time I was in New York. Either way, the kind of societal overview you get as thousands of Japanese folk pour before your eyes is invaluable.
- See more of Japanese society
- If you judge Tokyo at street level, most of the time it might appear as though Japan is a pretty shopping mall. In the subways, there are folks who would seem to be down on their luck, sleeping or coalescing down here where it's warm. I took a few pictures of some camps of homeless people and a security guard from the subway told me there were no pictures allowed.
- Get lost
- It's very easy to be swept along by the confidence of your fellow subway travellers. Especially when they are moving so fast and so sure, and you can't read all of the signs, or even if you can read the signs you might not read them right. Still, getting lost is a great way to see the sites, at least the underground cold late at night sites. At once it seems like a methodical place, but if you get an overview of the subway system, you can see an immense tangle of convenience:
- Study crowd dynamics
- People all around the world rush out of subways, but I suspect there's something uniquely singleminded about the headlong rush that most Tokyo folks make out of the trains and through the stations. I was working on a theory of self-determined traffic systems - since Japanese cars drive on the left side of the road (like Britian; the opposite of America and mainland Europe), I wondered if they would stay on the left side in most self-determining crowd situations. It seemed to go about fifty-fifty, surprising if they are mostly trained by their roads to lean leftward. My American mind was inspired to think that our right-travelling system is more natural and human and these folks are taking it up on their own. Poppycock.
- Explore health issues
- Riding the subway in Tokyo puts you at ground zero for the 1995 sarin gas attacks by Aum Shinrikyo
- One of twenty folks can be seen wearing facemasks. It's an unsettling thing to see - are they paranoid or protecting themselves from something the rest of us are too lazy and ignorant to understand? Maybe Sarin poisoning? In the spirit of Uncle Jim in Russia, I donned my own cotton face mask. I noticed people's eyes lingered overlong on me. Eventually Hattori or Yoko let me know that these people are protecting themselves from hayfever, because they're sensitive to it and it's allergy season.
- Study advertisements
- Tokyo itself is saturated with advertising, as much as any large city except things are more closely packed. And there's more lights and large public advertising TVs. The subways are no different, except that you're a more captive audience. I saw one series of ads I liked, in part for the graphics but mostly because of the convergeance of powerful ideas hinted at in the english text.
- Witness advanced Subway development
- Being from the Bay Area near San Francisco, I can only lust after a useful subway system. Tokyo is laced with subway stops, and the trains run very often - every few minutes. One train line running through Ginza had an electronic readout that showed you which stop you were at, and where you were headed. The subway cars are saturated with handles for stability in crowd situations.
- Store your luggage
- If you're a busy vagabond on the go, you've got to have somewhere to store your stuff - the subway stations in Tokyo all have lockers that will store small roll-on baggage.
- Run into strange foreigners
- In a thoroughly native place, each foreigner you meet is a narrow mirror. For example, I ran into this young gal from the Ukraine.